If nothing is going on around you and your thoughts are wandering, what do those thoughts sound like—or look like—inside your mind?
Everybody’s answer to that is probably different. According to an article in the Guardian, some deaf people don’t hear voices at all. Instead, they visualize a pair of hands, commenting in sign language, or a face whose lips they can read. A British author carries on a mental dialogue with a radio interviewer, who sometimes asks her cogent questions about decisions she needs to make. Another woman thinks in images on a TV screen in an attic inside her head.
I always assumed everyone’s thoughts expressed themselves as an inner voice because mine do, but after reading the article, I began to ask around. One friend thinks mostly in images, but several others do “hear” voices. Since I live in a retirement community, the question came up: Does an inner voice “sound” the same at 85 as it did at 25, or does it age, the way our public voices do? Women’s become deeper in later life, and men’s become slightly higher. And do inner sentences become less organized or more fragmentary?
If researchers have answers to these questions, I haven’t been able to find them online—though I did find people on one website wondering about them and sharing their own experiences. My search confirmed that everybody’s mindscape is different, and I learned that some people aren’t aware of any inner goings-on.
I suspect that what occurs in our minds does change over time—I know it has for me. When I was younger, if I listened in on my own thoughts, I was aware that they were happening on several levels. Beneath the strong, upper stream of consciousness, other, fainter voices—their messages less clear, more chaotic—were competing for my attention with occasional, fleeting images.
I’m 86 now, and these days when I listen, I hear only one voice. It’s my own and it has aged along with me. It’s also very quiet, which is probably why I often think out loud. I know what I’m thinking once I hear what I’m saying.
My inner voice addresses me by my last name, as in “Davis, what do you think you’re doing?” She scolds me sometimes, though she always sounds patient and understanding. She gives me instructions and reminds me of things I need to do. Sometimes she gets into a loop, telling me stories I’ve heard many times about things that happened in the past. She goes on and on, and it’s hard to shut her up, but she does that much less often now than she used to.
She also dictates what I write. I mutter her words out loud a beat before my flying fingers type them onto my screen.
Even when I’m not working, I do a lot of muttering. I’m lucky I live in a time and place where a woman, talking to herself in the supermarket or out on the street, is assumed to be on her phone—not out of her mind.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.